Recently, I was talking with a few small business owners, and I posed the question to them about their brand strategy. And they looked at me as if I had horns on my head! but maybe rightfully so. They enlightened me that they are in a commodity industry, but rigorously emphasized that each of them were successful because of their ability to manage customer relationships. By defining their industry as a commodity, it was an indication that they believed customers make their product choices based on price, and that their brand identity played no part in this purchase decision. When I asked why they thought their brand had no bearing, their response was that it was "unsexy, uninteresting and boring". But by emphasizing the focus on managing their customer relationships also suggests that there is truthfully more at stake than just this price-only decision theory. Customers are influenced by the company’s personality – at least at some level.

This also highlights how brand management takes place more so at the B2C level than at the B2B level, particularly with small and medium enterprises. I believe this occurs because of a stigma attached to brand management being more closely related to marketing communications and advertising then it is to creating brand personality or identity. And the associated perception of it being costly, time consuming and ineffective in a highly competitive industry.

In this article, we will explore a real life example of what one of the largest shipping companies in the world did to create a personality for an industry that was self-admittedly, boring. From this we will be able to see how such a framework could be used to small business owners to create a distinct voice in a marketplace filled with choices, competitors and opportunities.

Maersk-Line was founded in 1928 and is headquartered in Copenhagen, Denmark. With over 580 commercial transport vessels worldwide and 59,000 customers, shipping over 11 million containers annually- it is by far the largest commercial container transport company in the world. In the fourth quarter of 2011, Maersk began its foray into a new type of brand campaign with – drum roll – one person. The person in charge, and definitely a required recognition, was by a gentleman named Jonathan Wichmann. When he was first tasked to create and manage the social media presence for Maersk he was faced with such skepticism, not just externally, but internally. Just like our XYZ Cleaning Supplies Co. they believed their brand wasn’t meant to shared in such a personal way. It has traditionally been about marketing or more specifically, communicating Maersk’s pricing lists, destination, schedules and specific product details. Or more simply understood, to be an extension of their current marketing communication plan.

In developing a social media strategy for this new brand campaign – the emphasis was on: communications, customer service, sales (surprising!) and internal (employee) engagement. Wichmann based most of his strategy on what he knew about people, he knew that people are at the foundation of all businesses, and people will behave the same way in the end regardless of B2C or B2B markets. He knew Maersk’s customers wanted to interact with Maersk, simply because it’s part of the human need to want to interact with things in our circle, more than just a transactional experience.

The key to this strategy according to Wichmann, was to ensure that their branding could be flexible, and non-static, or preplanned. The key was to be able to have the flexibility to be spontaneous and authentic. To exercise the sole right to articulate a distinct, human voice (with professional overtones) for the Maersk brand.

From 2011 to 2013, Wichmann focused on building a presence across each social platform starting with Facebook. Facebook was naturally the first platform, since it was one that already began accruing members prior to the outlay of this new strategy. However, reflecting on this strategy starting with Facebook, it seems somewhat unusual. Initial impressions of such a campaign would be to start a digital branding campaign through other, more suitable platforms like Linkedin or a Blog. But again, the premise and overall goal of the strategy was to create a personality, or connect with customers in more of a personal way. Facebook, being a social network for people was the best avenue of creating this “personal Maersk story”.

When Wichmann found a hidden/lost digital archive of over 14,000 photographs of ships and ports – he began sharing them by posting them to Facebook, sometimes with little stories on the historical significance, or other relevant facts that would create some context with customers. These photos were posted to Facebook in different categories, some were dropped in categories like “vessels” (with dozens of photos at a time) and customers would comment, like and share them. While intermittently with these posts of pictures would be some specific marketing designated messages that would relate to Maersk’s quality service, rankings and awards attributed to specific business offerings and would reiterate how Maersk is there for your shipping needs.

The overall tone of the messages were professional in nature and clean – but still had a touch of personality. Some examples include: references to the movie Captain Phillips that was being shot on a Maersk ship or a story about a journey of unusual cargo like a giraffe being transported from port to port. Other more internal based photos would be of management in all types of settings, either on vessels, at a unique port or even at one of the many district offices.  

But the key to successful digital branding is to have real engagement with your customers. If you aren’t willing to allow customers to interact with your brand, then you really aren't engaging with them, and just communicating to them. For Maersk, in addition to posting interesting images of vessels, ports, management and unique stories they even solicited Facebook members to be active and provide their favourite images of a Maersk ship and then include them into albums, giving credit to the photographer. The benefit was that they allowed customers to interact with the brand on a more social level, creating an emotional connection that is arguably only reserved for the B2C market.

In late December 2011, some interesting facts came out of a poll initiated on Facebook. About 17% of followers were customers of Maersk, but surprisingly the largest percentage were just “fans” of Maersk – mostly defined as being shipping enthusiasts. This dynamic offered an element of opportunity, since there was a combination of current customers, potential future customers and people who might be in a situation to be a purchase influencer in the future.

In the first 11 months, over 400,000 new people “liked” the Maersk Facebook page. Many of these new likes were from employees as well. Considering that one of the four main objectives was to increase employee engagement, this branding strategy was extending beyond just the external environment of customers but into the inner workings of the business.

The employee body was made up of approximately 25,000 people, of which 7,000 were seafarers (Vessel captains, officers and crew). By increasing employee engagement on Facebook, it had opened up a new channel for fellow captains to connect with each other, as well as to family back home and indirectly created this sense of community within culture of Maersk. Additionally, this would also create a channel to gain new images and stories, since these 7,000 seafarers were at the forefront of bad weather, dangerous situations (eg. pirates) and beautiful skylines! This would create a whole new avenue of free and exciting content generation.

However, allowing your customers to be co-creators of your brand, carries certain risks (as McDonalds learned the hard way over the past few years). These risks can be negative publicity, angry customers or even plain old rumors. But these aren’t opportunities to ignore, they are just as important and valuable as the positive press. If something negative happens to your business, you must be ready to address it accordingly.

For example, On June 8, 2012, Maersk posted an article about a container ship striking a whale. Titled Maersk Norwich Whale Strike” (Highly recommend reading it). It discussed how these incidents could occur, what Maersk does to try and avoid these incidents and even had some emotional commentary about the great tragic loss of life and how it effects Maersk. The like to share ratio was 1:1 and they also engaged in a Q&A to help answer or clarify some questions customers (or people in general) might have.

Another example was on September 3, 2012 where Maersk posted an article the Clara Maersk who rescued 3,628 Vietnamese fugitives at sea, which included real archived footage from 1975 when the rescue occurred. These stories continued to give the brand an emotional experience with customers. They also helped generate great interest in the Maersk brand.

As Maersk expanded its digital/social brand identity across more platforms the strategy changed to create and add value to the overall personality. The way each platform changed messaging and the story it conveyed fit into a larger puzzle or storyline of the overall Maersk personality. I suggest doing a quick look at : Tumblr, Pinterest, Google+, Linkedin, Instagram, Flickr and twitter for the different messages being portrayed on each of those platforms by Maersk. Some were used more as employee engagement tools, by posting annual meeting videos, literature, some were more customer focused, some were editorial/media oriented. Each helping facilitate and reach different stakeholders with the brands overall message.

Some of the key results were pretty impressive – first the overall budget and cost for all this digital branding came to a total of $100,000 (includes employee time, publishing tool, Facebook ads to promote page and external vendor usage). At the end over 850,000 Facebook followers was achieved – and approximately 22% of this number was actual customers. The ROI is a big source of debate, but from a branding perspective, on which this campaign is really meant to achieve, succeeded.

Imagine the costs saved through other means of employee engagement (and the added benefit of creating the community feel), how about the reduced customer service fees/costs from using it to disseminate information to potential customers. And the overall awareness created in the marketplace. Today there are cumulatively over 2,000,000 Facebook followers for Maersk. If you think of all those people, with all their networks, professionally and personally. The total number of people familiar with the Maersk brand is easily past 10,000,000.

5 Key Takeaways:

  1. Don’t create or fabricate stories, but just tell the story of who you are – you’d be surprised how interesting that story actually is

  2. Focus on the end user, whatever you post – make sure it is actually valuable to them

  3. Be authentic with your brand, internally and externally – if you say something to your customers, you have to believe it completely internally (truthfully)

  4. Think about vision, what are you trying to accomplish? What is the WHY you are doing what you are doing, besides selling a product/service what are you hoping to be? The best XYZ Cleaning Supply Company in the world by offering the best cleaning and support solutions for a cleaner future? Be concise and direct

  5. Don’t worry about the ROI, think bigger picture – again what are you trying to articulate, who are you trying to articulate it to – what is the message that you want to convey about your brand

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